Oklahoma public schools are inching nearer a teacher walkout, as the two major teacher associations present differing visions of a solution to the budget crisis. All eyes are on Oklahoma, as the latest state to see educators demand higher salaries and more investments in schools after years of crippling tax cuts and funding cuts.
The Oklahoma Education Association, the National Education Association affiliate, suffered some internal strife over the deadline date to legislators for action. Initially a date in mid-April was chosen, but membership demanded a more immediate deadline, and April 2 is now the date for a walk-out of teachers. OEA has presented demands but no specific plan for raising funding, leaving that up to legislators.
Since the OEA challenge, the other teacher association, Professional Oklahoma Educators, joined the Speaker of the House, in calling for a plan for pay hikes for teachers, but not support personnel, with no funding mechanism. The plan would depend on future legislators to find funding. Some of POE’s members have responded angrily to that plan.
Most observers see “no sense of urgency” on the part of legislators to find new revenue for funding teacher raises, support personnel raises, and per-pupil investment to public schools. Two failed Special Sessions have not produced a workable budget, mainly because of the ramifications of State Question 640, which requires any tax hikes to pass both houses of the legislature with a 75% super-majority. One Special Session funding bill came within five votes in the House, after passing the Senate, but it failed. Nothing else has come close.
Many state advocates have suggested there is funding, if the legislature would raise the historically-low Gross Production Tax on oil wells in the state, and to end the automatic tax cuts to the wealthiest Oklahomas. Deep cuts to GPT and to income taxes have probably created the funding crisis the state is now facing.
Recently, the state employees, who have suffered the same lack of pay raises, voted to join teachers on April 2 for the walk-out. The fortunes of all are now linked.
A Civics class from Cache, OK, visited the Capitol, sat in on proceedings in the House, and then visited with their own House Representative. In an exchange captured on video, the legislator described the proposed walk out as, “…akin to extortion,” and a student responded in support.
A faction of the House is supporting a bill to use money from the Land Office to fund, not sustained raises for teachers only, but ‘stipends’ or ‘bonuses’ on an annual basis. HB3440 would require more funding to be withdrawn from the Land Office’s common schools trust fund.POE is supporting this plan, but OEA is not. The Attorney General of Oklahoma has weighed in, deeming this idea one that would surely face a constitutional challenge, costing the state needed funding to defend any lawsuit. There was no vote on this bill in the full House before the deadline for bills to pass from their House of origin, so this bill may not be viable unless brought back as a shell bill or an amendment to another bill.
This week, the Senate, in a rare evening meeting, passed a plan for raises, but failed to create the funding mechanism, falling short on the funding bill, of the ¾ required votes.
As the April 2nd deadline looms, more and more school districts’ school boards are voting to fully support a teacher walk out. Plans are underway to provide meals for students and daycare arrangements for working parents. Community leaders are offering resources to keep students safe and fed.